He also represents the old school – an established star working in a Southern style, which Levy considers to be behind the times. Part of the history embedded in this play is the story of the massive migration of black Southerners to the industrial cities of the North, and Levy suspects that his navy, mild finger approach with the blues will appeal to immigrant tastes, pass on to white record buyers as well. He also exemplifies a different artistic mindset – rooster, passionate, leaning towards self-destruction. He argues with other musicians and refuses to listen when they try to talk to him intelligently. He is attracted to Dassie Mae, which is a risky business venture. He is a young man in a hurry, eager to cash checks before they are written.
To be amazed at Bosman’s lean and hungry energy – it’s hard to see Levi – without realizing the renewed shock and sadness Boseman’s death earlier this year. Although “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” has been around for a long time and will last in archive, algorithm and composite memory, there is something particularly bad about dealing with it now.
This is not because it is timely in an obvious or direct way – Wilson’s argument is that now is always the time to calculate racism because black life is always important – but also because of some unexpected emotional vibrations. Wilson’s text is a study of perseverance, but it is hunted by loss, and facing it at the end of 2020 should feel the weight of the accumulation.
Some are permanent and sad Bosman lost at just 43 years old. We believe others are temporary. It is a rendering of a work written for the stage that begins with a concert – the sweaty, erotic scene of the active blues. This is a movie you will encounter in your living room or laptop, which further confuses the inevitable identity puzzle. Should we call this theater, cinema or television – or sometimes a beautiful, sometimes clumsy hybrid?
Perhaps the question is not a bar, or it will be even more important once our important bearings are restored and theaters and nightclubs are refilled. But at the moment, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is a reminder of the need for art, its sometimes terrible costs and the pricelessness of people, the living and the dead, with whom we share. “Blues help you get out of bed in the morning,” says Ma. “Wake up knowing you’re not alone.”
Black bottom of Ma Rainey
Estimated r. Running time: 1 hour 34 minutes. Check it out on Netflix.
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